The Saba Islander

by Will Johnson

Tribute to Beatrice Alfreda Maxwell-Caines

Image (2723)    The late “Freda” Caines was a great friend of mine since I can remember. As a matter of fact I also knew her father Mozes quite well. The Maxwells were a black family who lived in an area above Windwardside in the mountain just below where the Chinese restaurant is now located. This settlement dates back to the times of slavery and it was called “The Alley”. It has completely disappeared now in the sense that the former houses and lands of the few black families who lived there have all been sold and are now occupied by other families from Saba as well as abroad. It was customary back in slavery times and following for landowners on Saba to allow their slaves to live on lands which remained untitled. After slavery was abolished a second and third generation were allowed to live on these lands, but the ownership of the land remained in the hands of the former slave owners and upon the death of the occupants of the small houses the owners reclaimed the land and the small houses were demolished and later on sold .

“Freda’s” parents had moved to the English Quarter by the time she was born. This area is now mainly inhabited by black families some of whom have come in to Saba from Haiti in the past years. In former times the English Quarter was owned by white families such as the Leverocks, Hassells, Keeves and so on, so that the area known as The Alley was where the enslaved people of African descent lived.Image (1783) (Coal Pit in progress), I can remember as a boy seeing Mozes (Freda’s father) building large coal pits in the land just across the gut from where the Chinese restaurant is now located. It was interesting and it is from him that I learned how to build coal pits. Dr. Jack Buchanan told me once that someone had asked him if anyone knew how to build a coal pit. After he thought long and hard he said: “Believe it or not, I remember seeing a story in the newspaper where Will Johnson and his son Chris had built a coal pit.” He was correct with that. Chris asked me when he was a boy if we could build a coal pit. I put on my thinking hat and remembered how Mozes used to dig out a shallow pit, then put the freshly cut wood as support over the shallow pit. The pit was filled up with old rotten wood and other flammable material. Then the freshly cut wood, (mostly sea grape, cashew trees, redwood trees, guava trees and so on) , was stacked up. Of course if it was a big coal pit like Mozes used to build then it could take some weeks when it would have enough wood to start the covering. First it would be covered with large freshly cut chinney leaves (elephant ears), and then the soil from the shallow pit would be put over the leaves. A hole would be left at the back and the mouth at the front, with an opening on the top called a chimney or funnel. Then the trash in the pit would be lighted. Once it started to burn nicely the hole at the back would be sealed off with more soil. After you were sure that the green wood had started to burn the mouth at the front of the pit was also sealed up leaving only the chimney. Depending on the size of the pit, after a few days when you looked down the chimney and saw everything red then you had to quickly seal off the chimney or else instead of coal you would only reap ashes. Mozes came every day several times to add soil wherever a weak spot appeared on the surface of the coal pit. Even after the chimney had been sealed off there had to be a constant monitoring of the pit. It was at least a week or more before there was no more smoke oozing out of the coal pit. After it started to sag and collapse it was time to open her up and start harvesting coals. For me as a boy this was as exciting as finding a fowls nest in the bush with a set of eggs and leaving one behind for the hen to continue laying. Moses wife Violeta, his daughter Freda and the other children as well as other spectators would be on hand to see how well Moses ‘ coal pit had done. And mind you coals were only twelve and one half cents (‘good cents’) for a kerosene tin back in the day. The kerosene tin was the main source of measuring coals, Irish potatoes, and also used for carrying water on your head. The kerosene came in these 5 gallons galvanize tins on the monthly steamer from Curacao. The kerosene of course was Moses biggest competition as the more kerosene stoves that were imported the less demand there was for coal. These were then stored in cruder bags and delivered right away or else if you had a cellar they would be stored there until you could get a buyer. Since most people used coal for cooking, as soon as one coal pit was finished another was started. So for Mozes the building of coal pits was his main occupation. But of course back then people also had to plant and fish around the rocks in places like Spring Bay and wherever one thought that fish would congregate. Blacks as well as whites had to do this in order to survive in those days of isolation and hardship. However this little island was generous to all, and still is, to those who want to work. Image (2349)Alvin Caines

My friend ‘Freda’ was born as Beatrice Alfreda Maxwell in the English Quarter on March 23, 1929 and passed away on January 19th, 2014. Her parents were Mozes Jackson Maxwell and Violeta Gonzalos Hassell. She grew up on Saba and went to school with the Nuns at the Roman Catholic school in Windwardside. There were no job opportunities back then so you were lucky if someone asked you to do housework for them and get a five or if lucky a ten guilders per month. Freeda later on got a small job cleaning the Post office and Police station in the Windwardside.

She also met her husband Alvin Caines of St. Eustatius who had come to Saba with a group of musicians from that island. Together they had four children. When Alvin died the family asked me to do the eulogy and I checked it with “Freda” before I read it off in the church. As always she was in a good mood and laughing at what I read off and said: “Well it is the truth and it must be told.”

Alvin must have been going through a mid life crisis when he met a young Surinam nurse who fell in love with both his music and him. When she left the island Alvin abandoned home and family and went on what the Australians would call a ‘walkabout’  to Surinam and after the relationship cooled he ended up in St. Thomas and the British Virgin islands. Years later he wrote my father a letter asking him to speak to ‘Freda’ and ask for her forgiveness and to consider taking him back. She did not hesitate as he was not only father of her four children but she needed help and he had been a good provider when they had lived in harmony. And so the wayward boy came back home and he and ‘Freda’ lived in harmony until he passed away.

While Alvin was on his ‘walkabout’ you can imagine how tough it was for a single netherlands-antilles--81322(English Quarter),mother to raise her children, and so she had an additional four children while he was a wandering minstrel to the ladies of Surinam and the other Caribbean region. When Alvin returned they were able to build a nice home in the English Quarter on the same spot where her parents house was located. In the meantime the children had become adults and were working and could help her. They were a close knit family and were aware of the hardships their mother had gone through in order to raise them and so up until her death they remained faithful to her and helped whenever they could.

My relationship with her was always one of close friends. As for the politics between 1969 and 2010 when I last ran I never had to wonder where ‘Freda’ would vote. She always voted for me and would even ask for ‘help’ to erase any doubt. And would be there to help celebrate victory and regret defeat and would tell me. Don’t worry you will win next time for sure. And I did.

I went to see her when she was in the Home for the aged, but not enough. My schedule is still a busy one. A few days before I left the island for a meeting in Bonaire I was at the hospital and took the opportunity to go and see her but I was told that she was asleep and so I did not bother her. I felt relieved  when her granddaughter Shirley who travelled with me to Curacao told me at the airport there that she had good hopes for her grandmother and that she would be still there when I got back home. The very next morning I got a message from Shirley that ‘Freeda’ had passed on. Her son Stevan asked me to do the eulogy but my I-pad would go haywire and just delete whatever I wrote, so finally I told him that I was sorry that I could not contribute. But I did promise myself that I would do a tribute to her and her family as soon as I got the opportunity.

Shirley asked me to give some of the family history which I will do in part and give an internet site where further information can be obtained.

Freda’s father Mozes was born in Windwardside on Friday July 3, 1891. He had a sister Sophia born Wednesday April 25th, 1883 and a brother William born June 20th, 1885 and who died aged 20, June 24th, 1905.

Mozes’ mother was Elvira Maxwell. He married on August 15th 1923 at the age of 32. His bride was Violeta Gonzalos Hassell aged 22. Her parents were Peter Hassell and Gwendoline Gordon. THEY were married on Thursday August 30th, 1900. Peter was then 33 years old and Gwendoline was 20. (Strictly young women for those guys!). Gwendoline’s parents were John George Gordon (his mother was Johanna) and her mother was Margaret Granger (her mother was Margaret Granger as well). Gwendoline was a sister of Charlotte the wife of Isaac Hassell .

On Thursday January 13th, 1876 John George Gordon (19) married Margaret Granger (19).  As for Violeta’s father Peter I did not get anything on him as there are so many men with that name in the registers that it would require too much time. So if more family records are required then go to the site wie.was.wie.nl and it contains all the information you need to build a family tree. To the family of the deceased my deepest sympathy to all of you who have lost a beloved mother and grandmother and I have lost a good and lifelong friend.

And to my friend ‘FREDA’ may you rest softly.

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